A recent study found that the most popular “vegetable” eaten by 15-month-olds is French fries. One quarter of children between seven and twenty-four months consume no vegetables, and a quarter consume no fruit. Any parent who has followed their toddler around the living room with a spoon or resorted to flying airplanes of broccoli knows that dealing with a picky eater is frustrating. But although some studies suggest as much as a 75% genetic determination to the fear of new foods or “food neophobia,” there are some things parents can do to help get their children eat a diversified diet.
Even before your babies are born, you can help make them adventurous eaters. Food flavors are transferred through the amniotic fluid, which babies swallow in utero, giving them exposure to the flavors in mom’s diet. Research has shown that what a mom eats affects her baby’s preference for those foods. One study conducted by the Chemical Senses Center showed that when a mom drank carrot juice in her last trimester, her baby was more interested in mashed carrots many months later when solids were introduced. The same holds true for the food flavors transmitted through breast milk.
Research has also shown that we are strongly influenced by how the people around us eat. Brian Wainsink, author of Mindless Eating, believes that how food is approached at home is the real key to kids’ relationship with food. Because children take on Mom and Dad’s habits through modeling, he says that if you think your child should be eating more vegetables, take another serving yourself. Even our facial expressions matter; studies have shown that kids accept food more willingly when the serving adult smiles than when she frowns.
If these tricks don’t work, don’t despair; a child restricting his diet is actually part of a perfectly normal developmental phase. It’s an adaptive trait, coded into our DNA tens of thousands of years ago when we foraged for food and little ones were in danger of plucking poisonous berries. As soon as toddlers started to wobble away from their caregivers, nature flipped a “caution” switch, turning an indiscriminate baby eater into a selective one, wary of anything new. In fact, many other species, including non-human primates and even birds are food neophobic, says Laurie Santos, director of the Comparative Cognition Lab at Yale. Baby chimpanzees, for example, start out fearless (as do most human babies), and then become picky as their independence grows.
Kids also taste foods differently than adults do. According to Danielle Reed of the Monell Chemical Senses Center, children detect bitterness at lower concentrations, meaning they are more likely to reject vegetables such as Brussels sprouts and more likely to gravitate toward starch, sugar and fat. Going back to the evolutionary view, this makes sense given that toxic plants are more likely to be bitter and high-energy foods were important for survival. Furthermore, about 25 percent of the population has a version of a gene that makes them especially sensitive to bitterness in general, and even more so when they are children.
Your children’s eating habits will thus be dictated by a combination of the genes they inherited and the behaviors you show them. Whenever possible, expose them to new flavors, but try not to be too discouraged if you get shot down. Take away the food, take a deep breath and try again next week. Primates and humans work the same way: the more exposure, the more acceptance. But in the end, picky eating is a fact of life for our little monkeys, and it’s programmed into them for safety reasons. Most of us come around eventually. Even if your child never learns to love Brussels sprouts, you can almost guarantee that eventually he’ll eat more than just French fries.